During a meeting of women media practitioners in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, a TV anchor in her mid-20s asked to talk privately. Between sips of thick, local coffee, she explained her dilemma.
She was attractive, and that was in her favor. But what about a few years down the road? Women on camera tended to be cast aside at the first sign of wrinkles, she said.
“How can I prepare for when they don’t want me anymore? Are there other media jobs I can do?” she asked.
Over the years, I have met women journalists in more than 35 countries. I have celebrated their successes and commiserated with them over gender inequities, various forms of intimidation and cultural barriers that threaten to blunt their progress.
Challenges for female media professionals tend to have a familiar ring the world over.
In May, I put this to the test with 24 Ethiopian women, veterans and novices, gathered for a discussion on women’s role in the media. After introductory remarks, they separated into four groups to ponder the question: What are the greatest challenges/obstacles they face as journalists in their homeland?
The lists they produced were long and contained many common threads. Among them:
“It’s a man’s world – no familial or spousal support.” The women listed lack of help with child care, shopping, cooking, laundry and other household chores. One reporter noted, “I am the first one up, as early as 5 a.m., and last one to sleep, sometimes past midnight.”
Sexual harassment from news managers, colleagues and sources. Reporters described male sources blatantly flirting, a sign of disrespect in their eyes. A foreign affairs reporter told of going without a raise for three years after turning down her boss’ sexual overtures. Why didn’t she leave? “There are so few jobs. Where would I go?”
Editors underestimating women’s capabilities and assigning them to “soft issues” rather than prime beats like national security and politics.
Inferiority complex around male bosses and male colleagues. Low self-esteem and self-confidence. No role models for female staff.
Unequal pay and lack of promotions were among complaints.
Sadly, I’d heard it all before. During a discussion in Islamabad, a Pakistani reporter described a newsroom encounter:
“For months this guy made remarks every time I walked past. Sometimes about my breasts, or hips or my clothes. He said it loud enough for others to hear. Finally, I confronted him.
“I asked, ‘Would you talk to your mother or sister the way you talk to me? Would you treat them the way you are treating me?’ His response: ‘No, I would not. They are proper women. You are a journalist.`”
After that, “I stayed as far away from him as a could,” she said.
In South Sudan, women shared instances of being intimidated – and in one case roughed up – by male colleagues who treated them as sexual objects. They attributed it to cultural mores that promote gender inequality.
In Addis Ababa that morning, the group took a positive approach, seeking ways to make change. Emrakeb Assefa, a founder of the Ethiopian Media Women’s Association (EMWA), made an impassioned pitch for them to sign up and join organizing efforts.
She feels EMWA could be the driving force behind change, but the organization has been dormant and the website shows scant activity. There is strength in talking with one voice, Assefa told the women that day. When the meeting ended, several stood in line to add their names to her list.
The women discussed setting up mentoring sessions, seeking opportunities for professional development, and networking to keep the dialogue alive. Whether these goals become reality remains to be seen.
Following are tips on handling abusive sexual behavior from women journalists in Ethiopia and other countries. There are no magic answers. At best, these are a place to start:
Remind the offender that you are a professional and demand the same respect men in the newsroom receive. Do this in a calm, resolute manner that signals you are in control of your emotions.
Make clear that suggestive comments are not acceptable. Try the technique the reporter in Islamabad used: “Would you talk to your sister this way?” “Would your mother be proud if she heard your comments?”
If sexual overtures from bosses or coworkers become troublesome, keep a journal. Write down what was said or done, including date, time and place. If there were witnesses, list their names. This documentation will help if you confront the offender or take legal action.
Check out sexual harassment guidelines. Does your company have a written policy? If so, copy and circulate to female staffers. Some countries and states have sexual harassment laws. It’s worth checking out. Also, who supports women’s rights in your country? Seek out advocates, experts and legal advisors.
If your company does not have a system for reporting discrimination or sexual harassment, lobby managers to create one. Offer to head up a newsroom committee to study codes of conduct for employers. The U.S. Department of State defines sexual harassment and lists employees’ rights under its policy. The Australian Human Rights Commission offers a model conduct code, as well.
Keep in mind that this is serious business. A study, “Violence and harassment against women in the news media: A global picture,” documents the emotional impact gender that inequality, job discrimination and other forms of intimidation can have on women. The study was conducted by the International News Safety Institute and International Women’s Media Foundation.
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Thomas Hawk.